Author Archive for: jgates

The Entrance to our Narnia

21 Dec 2009
December 21, 2009
snowstorm in the park

The beginning of an 18 inch snowfall. Click image for larger view.

I live in the burbs of DC but on Saturday, like Lucy Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia I opened my closet door, I mean my front door to see this scene as the beginnings of what was to become an 18 inch snowfall unfolded before me. You might remember I took a similar photograph when I woke up to dense fog on Thanksgiving morning.

I love the snow (as long as I’m sitting by a roaring fire in a Swiss chalet). What I don’t like is shoveling our walkways and driveway, especially now with my unreliable back. Luckily, my children are growing into the most wonderful shovelers a father could have. (And let me not forget my wife who was their able assistant crew leader.)

Yesterday I decided to venture out late in the day to the drugstore for a few supplies. Our car had been moved to the edge of our driveway early in the storm. Why shovel any more than we had to. And the girls had dug the rest of the way out. Even though our side street had yet to be plowed, it looked like I could ease my way to the main road. As I tried to turn out of the driveway I lightly tapped the edge of a snow bank across the street, my signal to turn and move forward. Except I didn’t move forward: my tires spinning in a useless effort. I was stuck right in the middle of the street blocking all who wanted to pass. With the help of a growing assembly of neighbors (nothing like a little excitement when you’re snowed in) we pushed the front of the car back enough for me to turn and move back into the driveway. My trip to the store was jettisoned.

As I stood there surveying the scene I saw a tractor with a snowplow coming down the street. He stopped and asked if I needed help. Being the cynical suburban I asked “How much?” “Oh, $15 should do it,” he replied. He could see the skepticism clearly written all over my forehead and added with a smile “How much did you think I’d ask?” Within five minutes the whole driveway was clear and those same neighbors were lining up to contract his services.

Our winter wonderland bordered the entrance to Narnia. The snowplow was driven by our Aslan, the true leader of this enchanted land. And I became a true believer.

Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

12 Dec 2009
December 12, 2009

For the last year I’ve been getting email newsletters from the dealership where I bought my car. Although my Volkswagen is over nine years old the dealer wants to keep in touch with me. Naturally, they want to keep me loyal to their service department and, when it’s time, entice me to buy a new car. I understand and appreciate this as part of good customer service.

I like hearing about the new VWs and car safety. But the newsletter also clearly includes fluff pieces about new recipes, pushing one to try new experiences like skydiving and trapeze school, and must-see movies for 2010. None of these have anything to do with my car or any automobile. This had been bothering me for a while and a few days ago I finally wrote to give them some feedback.

“Dear Newsletter people,” I wrote. “I enjoy reading about updates to the VW line of cars. Keep sending those. However, I would like to give you some constructive feedback on other non-VW related pieces in your newsletter: I’m really not interested in them and, quite honestly, they dilute the value of your newsletter. Articles about the kitchen seem to be “filler.” Are you getting these from some newsletter story repository? Anyway, keep the germane articles but ditch the unrelated ones. Thanks.”

I subscribe to the PNP Sandwich School of Constructive Criticism: positive-negative-positive. I enjoy; I’m not interested in; keep the good. Wrapping criticism around some positives helps the other person hear what you’re saying. And that’s how I constructed my email to them.

A few days later I received this response from Mike:

Thank you for your thoughts, Jeff. Your instinct is absolutely correct… an outside company who works with Volkswagen creates the basic newsletter. From that template, we add our own content and try to customize it for our customers. We do this by writing articles and adding… specific coupons / savings programs. But you’re very observant to conclude that this came from an outside source. In fact, I will forward your message to the newsletter company. We always appreciate customer comments and recommendations. Thanks again, Jeff.

Unfortunately, Mike forgot to delete the comment his boss made in response to me:


It was nice that he wrote to tell us his thoughts. I’d write him back and tell him that his instinct was correct—that an outside company who works with Volkswagen creates the basic newsletter, and that we try to add our own content to it to customize it for our customers. That way, he’ll realize that it’s not just us—and that he was extremely smart and intelligent [emphasis theirs] in knowing that the newsletter was from an outside source. To make him feel even better, you could tell him that you’ll forward his comments on to the newsletter company.


I am observant. Most of the time. And, yes, I like being told I’m extremely smart and intelligent on a weekly basis. But flattery, Mike and Bill, will only get you so far. You didn’t get my point. Passing my comments on to the newsletter company won’t make me feel any better. Don’t blame them. But telling me you’ll include only auto-related articles from now on will. And that’s what I wrote them, using my patented PNP sandwich of course.

Oh, and re-read your emails before you send them to me, Mike. Yes, that will make me feel a lot better [emphasis mine].

Thanks for the Meat and Heat

26 Nov 2009
November 26, 2009
Thanksgiving in the Park

The view from our house. Click on image to enlarge.

Woke up this Thanksgiving to dense fog. After a little breakfast in the peace and quiet of the early morning I put my coat on over my PJs and walked a few feet out our front door to take this photograph. The last of the colorful autumn leaves was a great counterpoint to the atmospheric mist just above the forest path. To my Southern California friends who are expecting an 80°F holiday, eat your hearts out. This is what Thanksgiving is supposed to look like!

Now that everyone is up, Susie and the girls are making a pumpkin chocolate chip pie (yes, you heard me, chocolate chips!). The girls refuse to take credit for this artful derivative of the Thanksgiving classic (and so do I). It was all Susie’s idea. I will report on her success later. Much later.

Another first for this holiday: the Gates/Krasnican household, for the first time ever, is hosting a piece of pork for tonight’s dinner (in addition to our turkey). A smoked ham. This, too, was my wife’s idea. (What’s gotten into her? She was once an ardent vegetarian.) And while she still refuses to eat that porker, just having it in our house is an odd treat for the rest of us.

However, a few minutes ago, I was called into emergency service. All of a sudden, Susie began to think this ham needed to be soaked for 24 hours before eating. In addition, we couldn’t tell if the ham just needed to be warmed up or fully cooked. The thought never occurred to us that it wasn’t “heat and eat.” What do we know about preparing meat? After surfing the ham manufacturer’s Web site we still couldn’t tell. I ran to the market and enlisted the aid of the meat guy who filled me in. “A few years ago, your ham was fully cooked and advertised as ‘ready to eat.’ But meat safety became an issue and now the packages say the hams are cooked but need to be even more cooked. So put it in the oven for about an hour, hour and a half, until the inside temp is about 160. Then it will be ready to eat.” I bought a meat thermometer (another family first) and headed home.

As for me, I’ve been granted a temporary leave from the kitchen. I’m now sitting in front of the computer writing this missive while listening to Sarah Vaughn’s rendition of Summertime. Yes, it’s a cozy and cool late November day, just what Thanksgiving is supposed to be. But that doesn’t mean I’ve completely sworn off a fully-cooked, baked-to-perfection holiday with a bit of summertime heat.

One Day in East Berlin

08 Nov 2009
November 8, 2009
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, East Berlin, 1974

An East German Volkspolizei guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in East Berlin, 1974, © Jeff Gates. Click on image for a larger view.

I am slowly unearthing photographs and memories from my 1974–1975 trip to Europe. I took this image at East Germany’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I remember thinking the pomp and circumstance of the East German soldiers as they marched in front of the monument reminded me of ours at Arlington Cemetery.

While smoking was much more prevalent in both the East and West in the 1970s, I took notice of the large number of people in East Berlin with cigarettes in their hands. The man in the background on the left is striking a pose I often saw during my time in the eastern half of the city.

From here I went looking for a place to eat and found the cheapest dinner I had throughout my seven months in Europe. It was a full German meal, heavy on the wienerschnitzel with lots of heavy bread and vegetables, all for an astounding thirty cents American. I ate early to get back to West Berlin before dark.

For a young college student traveling on a budget that was the sweetest taste Communism could offer.

Related Post: Encountering the Berlin Wall (and its version on NPR)

Encountering the Berlin Wall

01 Nov 2009
November 1, 2009
Man at Berlin Wall

A family reunion at Checkpoint Charlie. Click image for a larger view. © Jeff Gates

In 1974, I was a fresh college graduate when I decided to embark on my first trip abroad. I spent seven months traveling in Western and Eastern Europe, exploring my longtime interest in borders. Even knowing a bit of history, they just seemed so arbitrary. To think there was a man-made demarcation line where one side abided by one set of rules and the other side by another was profoundly intriguing. The United States was so large and so relatively homogeneous it was hard for me to understand the weight of these lines.

My attraction to the epitome of borders, the Iron Curtain, was inevitable. Growing up in America in the 1950s and 1960s this border was emblematic of the line between light and dark, good and evil. And I wanted to experience it first hand to see just how black and white things really were.

I hitchhiked to Berlin in a bakery truck. Westerners could not stop in East Germany but had to transit non-stop to West Berlin — and the deliveryman was going the entire way. The life didn’t seem to change as we crossed that border. Nothing seemed out of place.

After arriving in the city I found a place to stay in the home of an old woman. I asked her if she had any relatives in East Berlin and told her of my plans to cross over. In a grandmotherly tone she gently warned me to be careful.

All Americans had to cross into East Berlin by foot, and there were only a few checkpoints we were allowed to use. I was herded into a small processing room at one of these crossings with many others, all of us crammed in wall-to-wall. But once on the other side, I still remember my initial reaction as I exited into the open sunlight: The sky was still blue, and the grass was still green. I looked for people “shackled by the chains of Communism,” but what I encountered didn’t match the stark differences I had been taught.

I spent the rest of my stay in the city following the wall on both sides of the border. When I got to Checkpoint Charlie, there was a platform we could walk up to that gave a good view at this ground zero of the Cold War. Except for a small family of West Berliners, I was alone. Suddenly, on the other side, a man appeared from around the corner. He stopped and stared at us. It hit me with a rush that he had come to see and be seen by the family standing next to me. They conversed in silence.

After about 10 minutes, the man turned and walked back around the corner. An East German police car followed him. The abandoned buildings along the wall blocked our view, and we waited. No one moved. No one spoke.

Fifteen minutes later, the man once again walked around the corner. This time, he turned in the other direction and gingerly skipped down the street, a sign that all was well. The tension on our platform broke, and the family began to talk and smile.

The grass was green and the sky was blue. But it was very black and white.

Update: This story and photograph have recently been published on the National Public Radio Web site and in Pictory magazine in their online feature 25 Stories of Culture Shock.

On Being a Voyeur: I Have No Complaints

04 Oct 2009
October 4, 2009

When I was in San Francisco last week for meetings I stayed with good friends in Noe Valley. Being a seasoned commuter I left the house each morning precisely at 7:55 and walked down to Market Street to catch the MUNI downtown. My Bay Area mornings were like every workday morning for me –a walk and then a hop onto mass transit.

And when I got onto my train I appeared to do what every San Franciscan did. I pretended to be in my own little world (as I pretend to do every morning on my commute from the Maryland burbs to downtown DC). Secretly, however, I was really being myself: curious as ever, watching my commuter brethren in their natural habitat on their ways to work. In this regard I am no mere amateur.

One morning as we pushed east from Church Street I spied a young man near one of the doors. He appeared to be in his twenties, with blond shaggy hair and dressed casually. He was looking into a folder. Straining my neck just a little and with experienced stealth I was able to see the folder was filled with music scores, which added to my excitement. I tracked his eyes as he read the scores line by line just like a good book. Every once in a while he’d laugh. No, it was more of a chuckle, as if he’d just read a funny passage filled with alluring innuendo from Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

He seemed to really be enjoying his morning read. Looking around, I seemed to be the only one noticing him. Ah, a hidden pleasure visible only to me. I’m such a voyeur. He was so engrossed in his music I continued to look directly at him with no fear of being discovered. You might remember I’ve been in this enviable position before.

Music Feet on the DC Metro

Interestingly, this was my second mass transit encounter with the musical staff. A few weeks before as I made my morning commute to work I suddenly looked down at the feet of woman standing next to me. Each foot sported a music notation tattoo. I so wanted to ask her the significance of her musical commitment but decided the mystery was more interesting.

In the case of the young man there simply was no photograph or video that would adequately convey the encounter. The memory of watching this little tableau unfold was more than enough. He exited the train at Van Ness and I wondered if he worked at the symphony or opera close by.

The woman’s feet, however, were wonderfully photogenic. Their position on the subway floor suggested a dancer but the rest of her body seemed more musician.

In both cases I was left with a mystery which only encouraged me to continue with my life’s work underground.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074